Ask the Rabbis | Can Jews Married to Non-Jews be Considered Spiritual Leaders in the Jewish Community?

INDEPENDENT

Why not? Moses was not such a bad spiritual leader of our people, and he was married to Tziporah the Midianite. His nephew, Eliezer the High Priest, was married to a Midianite woman as well. Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the spiritual leader of our people, married Rahav the Canaanite (Talmud Bav’li, Megilah 14b). Boaz, spiritual leader of the tribe of Judah a century or so later, married Ruth the Moabite.

The first-century Rabbi Akiva was married to the Roman Claudia Rufina, ex-wife of Quintus Tineius Ruffus, the Pontius Pilate of his time (Rashi on Talmud Bav’li, Nedarim 50b). But it was okay back then, because this was centuries before the tragic establishment of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many will of course argue that these wives all “converted.” True, many joined the Jewish people, but throughout the entire Tanach, you will find no sign of the modern notion of “conversion.” You can convert your electric dryer to gas-operated, but you cannot convert non-Jewish to Jewish.

You can only “graft,” a far simpler and more authentic deal: “The Holy-Blessed-One said to Abraham: ‘I have two wonderful stems destined to be grafted within you: Ruth the Moabite and Na’mah the Amonite’” (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 63a).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Not only can intermarried rabbis and other clergy exist, we do exist, and we have for quite awhile. Intermarried spiritual leaders are not only able to help model what committed and flourishing Judaism can look like for people living in diverse households, we can often help couples and families determine how to bring Judaism into their own lives in more meaningful ways, without fear of guilt or shame around whom and how they love.

The Jewish community’s fears about intermarriage are not bearing out. We no longer need to ask what might happen if we have significant numbers of Jews intermarrying, for this is already happening and we are seeing the result: These Jews—couples and families—are engaging with Judaism in beautiful, creative, meaningful ways.

Participants in my community, most of whom are intermarried, children of people who are intermarried, or partnered with people who are not Jewish, all live vibrantly Jewish lives. In fact, we find that explaining celebrations and rituals to our loved ones can increase our own feelings of Jewish connection, for we articulate what the various aspects of Judaism are, what they mean to us and why they matter.
Rabbi Denise Handlarski
Secular Synagogue
Toronto, ON

RENEWAL

Clearly, some intermarried Jews already are spiritual leaders—in Renewal, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated groups that accept and value them. Which makes sense—these are the parts of the Jewish spectrum less concerned with ethnicity, blood lineage and halacha; more intermarried themselves, and more comfortable with spiritual wisdom from multiple traditions.

Many who oppose ordaining intermarried rabbis feel that rabbis are supposed to model Jewish commitment for the congregation. But with non-Orthodox Jews in America intermarrying at a 70 to 80 percent rate, an intermarried spiritual leader might actually be a helpful model to congregants living the new reality. The notion of a “model of Jewish commitment” may also be shifting. For centuries, the rabbi was male, and his wife, the rebbetzin, played an integral communal role: She greeted congregants, made food for kiddush, served as her husband’s gatekeeper, comforted women mourners, led the women in prayer and counseled young brides. This is still a beloved model at Chabad houses and Orthodox shuls today. But elsewhere, rabbis’ spouses or partners (of whatever gender) are no longer necessarily expected to be unpaid assistants. As the role of a rabbi’s spouse/partner recedes, their religious status also becomes less important to the community. If the rabbi is blessed to have a loving partner of any background who encourages and supports the rabbi’s deep immersion in Jewish life, surely that should be enough for the rest of us.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

Yes, I believe Jews of any marital status can serve, and are serving, as wonderful spiritual leaders in the Jewish community. We should embrace and have gratitude for the leadership gifts people bring, which are independent of the interests and commitments of the people they love. The Reconstructionist movement has had a policy for the last six years that welcomes rabbinical students regardless of whether their partners, if any, are Jewish, and the policy has enriched the movement with wonderful colleagues.

For me, this has been a process of learning. I still believe that in-marriage can be helpful for living a Jewish life, for it is difficult for any minority in the United States to maintain and pass on a cultural heritage different from that of the mainstream. Pressures to assimilate come from many corners—work, school, social circles and more. In such a context, a Jewish spouse and extended family with its shared culture can be one important way of creating support for one’s identity as a minority. Yet it is only one of many ways. Intentional choices to create a rich Jewish life are equally powerful. And increasing the accessibility of great Jewish education underlies all paths and would have the most impact. We do no service to the Jewish world by denying the leadership gifts of dedicated Jews who teach, inspire and deepen our Jewish lives.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA

REFORM

Yes. Jews married to non-Jews are already spiritual leaders in the Jewish community. There are successful rabbis, educators and other professionals who have non-Jewish partners, and often, their experience as part of an interfaith family benefits their work.

In today’s world, the religious status of someone’s partner cannot serve as a reliable sign of their Jewish commitment. Many serious, learned and inspiring Jews build a home with someone who is not Jewish. Conversely, there are plenty of Jews married to Jews whom you probably wouldn’t want as your spiritual leader! You can’t judge just by someone’s marriage partner.

I challenge folks who care about “how Jewish” a spiritual leader is to specify precisely what is important to them. Is it ritual observance? Adherence to Jewish law? Depth of knowledge? Lay out the factors you care most about and then assess a spiritual leader for those qualities. I bet, when you get down to it, the religious status of a person’s spouse isn’t going to make the list.

Especially in organizations and communities where interfaith families are common and accepted, intermarried Jewish spiritual leaders can certainly be celebrated and successful.
Rabbi Daniel Kirzane
Oak Park Temple
Oak Park, IL

CONSERVATIVE

The spiritual leader of a Jewish community has an important role in ensuring that the overarching goals of the Jewish people are realized: commitment to serving God, support for the Jewish people, a life of Torah and support for the State of Israel. A spiritual leader—a rabbi or a cantor in most synagogues—does not have just any job. My colleagues and I have chosen a lifestyle, one that demands a Jewish partner in order to create the fullest Jewish life and most effective leadership.

A Jewish spiritual leader is a dugma eesheet—a person who sets a good example in actions, thoughts and presence. This person is a role model to the Jewish and non-Jewish communities and as such must maintain a serious, engaged, observant and committed Jewish home, which is reflected in choices as weighty as life partner or as mundane as kashrut observance.

Our work, rightly so, is hard, and at times it can be lonely. While I offer no halachic basis here, based on the sociological reality of a Jewish life, I would say that to do this work effectively and authentically—if one is lucky enough to have a partner—that partner must be Jewish.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

In my immediate community, Modern Orthodoxy, the answer is no. Since a rabbi married to a non-Jew would be violating halacha, he would be unfit to serve as a spiritual leader. Moreover, since intermarried Jews have lower rates of ritual observance, of affiliation and of support for Israel, most Modern Orthodox Jews would consider them bad role models.

That said, I recognize that there are communities where many members are intermarried. Some of these might seek a spiritual leader with a similar pattern of marriage, with the thought that if the spiritual leader is Jewishly learned or activist, similarly situated members might be more likely to identify and become better Jews.

My advice to people in such a community: Check out why the potential rabbi is intermarried. Often, intermarriage means the person does not care that much about being Jewish, is not bothered that children of a non-Jewish parent are likely to be less affiliated and is not motivated to convince a spouse to convert. In such a case, you would probably want to find a different spiritual leader/role model. But in other cases, a deeply caring Jew may meet and fall in love with a non-Jew. The non-Jewish partner may not be willing to convert because he/she is a devout member of another faith, has devout parents or has an aged parent who would be deeply hurt by a child’s conversion to Judaism. In other words, this rabbi is a committed Jew who cares deeply about the Jewish future—and perhaps has children who are being raised Jewish—but is constrained by legitimate human concerns from having a spouse become Jewish. This kind of intermarried rabbi might nevertheless be able to inspire a higher level of Jewish identity or commitment in you and your children. If your community is ready to choose an intermarried rabbi, this is the kind of person you should seek out.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY

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ORTHODOX

There’s a classic story of a professor who lectures on the evils of smoking while puffing away at a cigarette. Someone asks afterward, “How can you be so passionate and yet smoke?” He responds, “If I were teaching trigonometry, would I have to become a triangle?” If you subscribe to this theory—that is, if you believe a leader does not have to model whatever his mission statement is—then this is a legitimate question. Otherwise, it’s clear that such a person should not be entrusted with guiding the future of the Jewish people.

It’s disappointing that in 2022 this argument still needs to be made. In 2001, the National Jewish Population Survey found a rate of intermarriage that, though lower than today, shocked many. Doomsayers said, “This is the end of the Jewish people!” But others were quick to respond that it was not so gloomy, but rather a source of hope, because so many intermarried people and their children identify as Jews.

That was a baseless balm on the wound to the Jewish people. A 2020 survey found that only 16 percent of adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews by religion. Almost half of those surveyed said they were Christian. Even those identifying as Jewish don’t offer much hope for a vibrant Jewish future. The (non-Orthodox) Jack Wertheimer has described the identity of intermarried couples and their children as “thin”—thin on learning from traditional Jewish sources, thin on Jewish practice, thin on commitment to Israel. By now, we should realize that the only real future for the Jewish people is one based on strong Jewish families—that is, a Jewish nuclear family of two parents both committed to the Jewish past, present and future, which means commitment to the Jewish people, Jewish practice and traditional Jewish values.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

To be a spiritual leader one needs to embody the values one preaches. A misogynist cannot preach equality, you don’t discuss the importance of vegetarianism over a rib steak, and it would be hard to be inspired to protect the planet when the speaker arrives at the event in a gas guzzler. That does not mean that the answer to the question above is negative. It means that we first have to define the value system of said community. If the community is in favor of such marriages, then that person could become a spiritual leader. If not, one could still ask why those two people are married to each other, why the non-Jewish spouse is not converting to Judaism and whether the candidate is being hired to convey a spiritual message not reflected in his or her lifestyle. If so, the result of the appointment will be the opposite of what is intended. Each case should be examined individually to see whether the candidate meets the requirements of the position, not only in terms of professional credentials but also in terms of being a role model.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

Opening picture: “Ruth in Boaz’s Field” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

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